Tag Archive for game design

A Group Of One

Playing around with EverQuest again, I’m reminded how much I love First Person view for MMOs. I play Star Trek Online in “mostly First Person” because you can’t actually go all the way in, but you can get the camera right up behind the character’s shoulder and eliminate the ability to see behind yourself, and immediately the game gains ten times more immersion. I assume my fascination and love for First Person comes from my love of shooters, especially team based shooters.

However, if the world is going to continue to insist on 3rd person view (probably because retention studies show that people stick around longer when they can constantly see how awesome they look in their latest gear) and that games be playable solo (which I’m not going to get into an argument about), I’d love to see an MMO go full on Party Mode like the old SSI and other RPG games.

Bard's Tale

If you pressed 'Z' on the PC version you got an elemental to join your party.

And I’m not talking about playing one character and having AI controlled mercenaries. No, I mean the player creates and controls a party of 4 to 6 characters.

Assuming that each character would fill a role in the group, the UI really wouldn’t be much different from today. Instead of playing a single tank character who has a couple dozen abilities for tanking you’d have a character in your group who has a handful of tanking skills. Each character, as far as combat is concerned, is really just 3 to 6 abilities on hot-keys. And you could macro so that you can chain abilities from different group members to execute combo moves.

When traveling, you’d control the lead character and choose a formation for the others to follow.

The game wouldn’t be entirely solo (just solo in a way that makes sense), but you could still group up with another player. You’d join your groups together into raids. An odd advantage to this is that since each group is likely to be fully functional (having their own tanking, healing, DPS and other skills) it simplifies the raid interface by accident. Each player manages their own people and the game really only needs to maintain the players in a raid for chat and loot distribution purposes.

Suddenly a “5 man” raid is actually 20 to 30 characters. The raid events can feel more epic while keeping the people-complexity low – it’s easier to herd 5 people than 25 people. This would also allow events themselves to be more complex yet easier, in that the raid can involve fighting multiple targets or doing synchronous goals (2 or 3 players fight a boss while other players solve puzzles or do other tasks) but without needing to manage entire groups of players for each item.

The more I think about it, and if the MMO trend is going to continue in third person views, the more I like this idea. It definitely needs more thought, but I like the direction it is going very much.

Motivation

You might have noticed that the last couple of weeks have been filled with half-hearted posts and automated reposts of things I’ve tweeted.  Sometimes I just can’t think of anything worth saying, and other times if I think of something worth saying I just can’t find the energy to say it.

Still, at other times, I have something I think is worth saying, but I’ve said it so many times before that I’m running out of new ways to say it without repeating myself.  This has been pretty much the reason for my lack of posting lately.

When it comes to game design, I’ve pretty much said the same thing over and over for years now.  Games like World of Warcraft are fun, but they do not excite or engage me.  I want more story (and by that I mean more put into the world for me to discover and use in my story, not to be confused with clicking through a story someone else wrote – or worse, sitting and watching cut scenes of stories where I don’t even get to participate – in my view EverQuest had more story that most current games), and I want grouping, and I want less focus on levels and gear and racing to the “endgame”, and I want a slower pace that allows me time to interact with other players while playing as opposed to button mashing extravaganzas where I have to stop playing in order to talk to people.  And if a game needs to have voice chat it should be in the game, not a 3rd party tool (or ffs integrate some damn controls through your game’s UI so that I don’t have to alt-tab out to join chat with people).

At this point, my gaming talk will probably fizzle out and just be the random post now and again about a game I’m playing or something I’m doing (or if I win the lottery, the game I’m building), so I apologize in advance if the posts I do make don’t interest you.  Since I’m no longer motivated to ramble on about game design, I’ve got to seek out other motivations…

More to come… I hope…

What I Read

I don’t maintain a blogroll here, or even links of any kind to other sites unless they are within posts.  However, in a fit of narcissism I decided that I would post a list of links to all the sites that are contained within my Google Reader.  So without further ado, presented here in alphabetical order, and in one giant ugly paragraph, is what I read:

.: Cedarstreet :., < witty title >, A Next-Gen-MMORPG, A Softer World, A Tree Falling in the Forest, Anyway Games, Applied Game Design, Basic Instructions, bbPress Blog, Bio Break, Brass Goggles, Brea Grant, Broken Toys, Clients From Hell, Coding Horror, Corvus & the IGDA, Crabapple Cove, Critical Distance, crowdSPRING Blog, Daily Dragon Online, daspetey, David Wellington, DESIGNER NOTES, Digital Diary Detailing Datamancer’s Deeds, Digital Gaming@Dragon*Con, Dinosaur Comics, DOGHOUSE, Don’t Fear the Mutant, Dragon*Con MMO, Dragon*ConTV, DragonCon, DreamHost Status, Eating Bees, Elder Game, Epic Slant, Ethos Incarnate, Experience Curve, Felicia Day, Fidgit, Fullbright, Fun in Games, Fun in Real Life, Game Design Concepts, Game Design Reviews, GARY WHITTA, Geek Girl in Training, Grim News, Grumpy Gamer, Hark, A Vagrant!, Heartless_ Gamer, I HAS PC, ihobo, indexed, International Game Developers Association Board, into survival., James Van Der Memes, Karnatos, Kieron Gillen’s Workblog, Kill Ten Rats, Killed in a Smiling Accident., Kung Fu Monkey, LevelCapped, Lost Garden, Man Bytes Blog, Middle and Up, MMOData.net, Mobhunter.com, Moo Tang Clan, Mumble, My Name Is Michael, National Novel Writing Month – Breaking News, Nerdist, Nerfbat, Netflix – New choices to watch instantly, Netflix Community Blog, Not Always Right | Funny & Stupid Customer Quotes, not much’a nothin’, On Beyond Zebra, One Of A Crowd, Online Games Are a Niche Market, Only a Game, Over00, PARA ABNORMAL – the comic, paulietoons, paulneuhaus.com, Penny Arcade, Picture’s Up, Play Like a Girl, Popnarcotic, PostSecret, Psychochild’s Blog, PvPonline, Quarter to Three, Radioactive State, Rands In Repose, Raph’s Website, Real Life Comics, Running With My Eyes Closed, Scott Hartsman – Off the Record, screen play, Script Frenzy – The Beat, Sexy Videogameland, Shakefire.com blogs, ShrinkGeek, ShutterDreams, Smed’s Blog, Stylish Corpse, Surviving The World, Symptom of a Greater Cure, T=Machine, Tami Baribeau, Teaching Game Design, Terra Nova, Texas State Word, That’s a Terrible Idea, The Ancient Gaming Noob, The Banstick, The Brainy Gamer, The Celtx Blog, The Common Sense Gamer, The GameDev Project, The Grouchy Gamer, The HoneyComb Engine, The Internet Crashed, The Mod Squad. Blog., The Oakstout, The Oatmeal – Comics, Quizzes, & Stories, The Office of Letters and Light, The Official DreamHost Blog!, The Psychology of Video Games, The Word of Notch, This Side… Down, Tish Tosh Tesh, Tobold’s MMORPG Blog, Twitter Blog, Undead Labs – News, Van Hemlock, We Fly Spitfires – MMORPG Blog, Welcome to Spinksville!, West Karana, WIL WHEATON dot NET: in exile, Wolfshead Online, WordPress Development Blog, Words from Ward, WorldIV, xkcd.com, You Got Red On You, You Might As Well Be Unemployed, zen habits, Zen of Design, Zombie Reporting Center

Make of this what you will.

Help Haiti, Get Games

I saw this first from Raph, then Lum, and lastly Tesh, and I couldn’t ignore it anymore.  A $20 donation through DriveThruRPG gets you $1,481.31 worth of gaming stuff.  I have a healthy interest in games and game design, and just like most writers will tell aspiring writers that the best thing to do is read, most game designers will tell you that the best thing to do is play games.  If you don’t have $20 to give, they’ll take and match any $5 and $10 donations.  But hey, why not just go for $20 and get the free stuff?

Combat Pacing

One discussion that comes up from time to time when talking about game design for MMOs is about combat pacing.  That is, how long should a fight last, and how “active” should the player be?  In fact, just last week a thread about this showed up on the forums over at Nerfbat.

Because I’m more interested in group play and social interactions, obviously my stance is to make fights longer and reduce the need for button pushing.  I’m extremely fond of the old EverQuest design where fights were counted in minutes and players often had between 3 and 10 seconds between actions.  In my opinion, this allowed for more tactical play, allowing you to see what was happening and consider your response as opposed to faster games where you tend to approach the fight with a plan and execute it, the individual fight lasting 30 seconds or less (excluding boss and raid encounters, which are obviously tuned to large groups and to last longer).

I also like slow combat because currently, unless you are playing exclusively with friends and using voice chat on a Ventrilo server or similar service, social interactions have to occur through the same keyboard that controls game play.  If you are hitting a key to perform a combat action every 1 to 2 seconds, that doesn’t give you much opportunity to chat.  The more “intense” the combat, the more “quiet” the game gets, and you have to practically stop playing the game in order to be social.

Anyway, those are my thoughts, also expressed in the thread.  If you want to join in the discussion, I encourage you to sign up at the Nerfbat forums and do so.

Stop! Socialize!

Back when I played EverQuest, I often described the game as a chat server with a D&D style game tacked on to it.  This felt right because most of the game could be played without paying specific attention to the graphics.  Most of the action happened in your chat window.  People talked, the NPC text scrolled by, even damage output was all in this little window (until they allowed you to customize the UI, at which point I shoved all the damage output into a tiny window that I barely paid any attention to so I could focus more on the chatting).  With World of Warcraft they put more of combat into the hotkey bar, made you care about refresh timers and started dragging your attention away from the chat window.  They even eliminated the wall-sitting exp grind and forced you to keep moving around, so you had to actually watch the screen instead of just waiting for the puller to get back with a mob to fight.  In Free Realms, the mini game design requires so much attention that I find myself playing for an hour and realizing that I haven’t been reading the chat window.  I complain about not being able to find my friends in Free Realms, but to be perfectly honest, they might have come on and sent me tells, but I missed it because I was too busy chasing NPCs or looking for quests, or in mini games where I’m too busy playing a game to be watching chat.

The progression of MMOs that I am seeing is to get people more involved with the game, but less involved with the people.  In order to socialize in Free Realms, I have to actually stop playing and stand around.  In EQ, progression and socialization could happen (did happen) simultaneously.  And we won’t even go into the fact that I have not once grouped with anyone in Free Realms, even when I’ve wanted to and tried, it just doesn’t seem to be something people care about… or maybe they simply aren’t seeing my area chat asking for a group because no one is reading.

One of the best things about the Xbox 360 is the built in voice chat that works by default in all games.  If you play multi-player, you can chat with the other players.  It would be nice if MMOs could integrate voice chat more fully since they are taking our eyes away from the chat box and using our keyboard more for play than talking.  Ideally, a game would have some sort of spacial chat, similar to the way “say” worked in EQ (and other MMOs), so people within a certain distance would hear you.  That way when you were hanging out with your group in a dungeon, your group hears you, and when you walk in to town you hear players within an X foot radius, approaching people you want to hear, moving away from people you don’t.

I’d love to see it happen, because the current trend of having to choose between playing and socializing is killing my interest in their games.

Marvel: Ultimate Alliance

I realize this game is not new.  I even got it over a year ago, but I am just now getting around to playing it and I think I broke it.

My understanding is that if you play through the story of the game as designed, it will provide a moderate level of difficulty all the way through, perhaps even getting harder toward the end.  However, I didn’t do that.  I played through the first section of the game (immediately switching my team out for the West Coast Avengers inspired team of Hawkeye, Moon Knight, Spider-Woman and Iron Man), but once I got to Stark Tower, the first HQ and mission hub in the game, I went exploring instead of taking the next mission immediately.

One of the features of the game are the Comic Book missions.  These are short (20 minutes max) training simulation missions that you discover while playing through the game.  However, they do also give you six of them to start.  Because they are given to you, there are no rewards for these missions.  You don’t unlock extra gear or suits, but you will gain experience and cash while playing them.  I played all six (and I had to repeat one because I fell about three hundred points shy of getting the Gold level on it, so I actually did seven missions).  The result of this detour was that when I went to do mission number two I wasn’t level 4 or 5 like a player should be when going through the story missions alone, I was level 14 or 15.  For the next two story missions I ripped through them like a hot knife through butter.  I take enemies out in two or three hits easily, sometimes less.  Boss fights are a breeze as I am doing 60-80 points of damage with one of Moon Knight’s special attacks (he’s my favored character on whom I dump all point spending and the best items).

I’ve just moved from Act 1 to Act 2, Dr. Strange’s house, and I am hoping that maybe the game will get a tad harder.  We’ll have to wait and see.

But, this brings up a discussion of game design.  The question is, did the designers put in the training missions expressly for the purpose of giving players who can’t progress in the story a place to play and level up a bit, or is this leveling path I have discovered unintentional?  I would like to think it was intentional since it can be extremely frustrating to get stuck in a game, however since I managed to get 10 levels in just a few missions, I think they may have misjudged them and made them too rewarding.

Of course, I may have also broken the game design through my method of play in that I am dumping all my power and money into one character and treating the other three members of my team as “additional damage”.  So many years of playing MMOs with the tank/healer mentality leaks over in to every game I play.  I can’t blame that entirely, though, as mathematically and logically it makes sense to play this way, if defeating the content is your goal.

In any event, despite the game being “easy”, I am still enjoying playing it.  And that’s the important thing…

Illusions the Game

The first Round Table of 2009 is as follows:

Putting the Game Before the Book What would your favorite piece of literature look like if it had been created as a game first? In a time when bits of Dante’s Divine Comedy are being carved out and turned into a hack-n-slash game, I find myself longing for intelligently designed games–games with a strong literary component–not merely literary backdrops. So rather than challenge you to imagine the conversion of your favorite literature into games, I challenge you to supersede the source literature and imagine a game that might have tried to communicate the same themes, the same message, to its audience.

So, anyone who knows me well knows immediately what book I picked, but as fast as I picked that book I also ruled it out.  My first thoughts were of how impossible it would be to make a game that illustrates the same message.  I then spent several days trying to pick another book, another piece of literature, something else… but it was a fruitless search, and I knew that in the end I would have to accept the challenge and try to design a game with the idea that it existed in the same place as the book had the book not existed.  I racked my brain looking at computer games and card games and board games and schoolyard games and everything I could think of to craft my game out of, and it was then that I realized that it didn’t matter.

First, allow me to introduce you to the book, which I feel is one of the finest if not the finest piece of literature ever written, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah by Richard Bach.  The story is about a man who decided to get away from the life he had and trying to figure out what live he wanted by getting in a biplane and taking up barnstorming (flying around, stopping at small towns and offering to take people up while you do turns and loops and whatnot for a small fee).  This man, Richard, has an unlikely meeting with another barnstormer, Donald, who is the Reluctant Messiah of the title.  Richard is a man escaping the world because of all the restrictions in it, and Donald is a man escaping the world because the people refuse to see it has no restrictions.  Donald teaches Richard that the world is nothing but illusions, that anything is possible and that the only limitations anyone has are the ones they insist upon themselves, and the only things that really matter are entertainment, learning and other people.

For our game, let me start by paraphrasing a quote often found on the back cover of the book:

Here is
a test to find
whether your mission in game
is finished:
If you’re playing,
it isn’t.

If Illusions were to be a card game, it would be like Mao, only it isn’t just the dealer who knows the rules and unveils them, everyone participates.  If Illusions were a schoolyard sport, it would be like Calvinball.  In fact, if you look around, other variations of the “make up the rules as you go along” game exist for pretty much any medium.  Even MMOs have their sandboxes (Second Life, etc), and even in more rigid MMOs (World of Warcraft, etc) the game itself has no defined end and it is up to the player to decide under which conditions they consider the game to be “finished”.

Of course, getting people to want to play a game that has no rules (but potentially has all rules) is tough.  Without the rules, most people won’t know what to do, and whether they realize it or not, their dislike of the “game” is probably tied to its similarity to “life”.  The game is what you make of it, as much as life is what you make of it… and that is the point.  In whatever form the game were to be presented, a player could easily make up a rule that allows them to instantly “win”, however the question isn’t whether or not they won but if they enjoyed it, if they got something out it.  Maybe by throwing down the “I win” card in the first round they do get something out of it, they smile, they laugh, and yet if they do it enough they might find that no one wants to play with them anymore, which itself is an opportunity for learning: if you want to play with other people, other people have to have the opportunity of winning.

As you make up and play with new rules, you discover how they affect you and those around you, and you can find which rules lead to the most fun in the game, for everyone, and those are the rules that you will end up keeping around.

Back in High School, a group of friends and I would play cards at lunch.  On days when people were angry at stuff we sometimes played Egyptian Ratscrew (though we used the F-word instead of “screw” because we were teenagers), but that could lead to much pain, so more often than not we played Mao (mentioned above).  And while one guy was the one who brought us the game and the initial set of rules, each dealer was allowed to craft their own set, as long as they named it (so that players could file rules learned under a heading for later play).  We had tons of fun making up rule sets and yelling at others when the rules that were made stunk (the lunch monitors had to drop by and ask us to quiet down at least once a day as we got into heated disputes).  In the end, the rules that stayed and made their way into every dealer’s set were the ones that made people laugh, even when they forgot the rule and got penalty cards.  By the time we crafted the master rule set that we settled on (called “Neo-Einteinian” if I recall correctly), players no longer cared if they won or lost the game, they just loved playing it, and to me that should be the goal of every game.

So, as you can see, I deviated from the stated purpose of this month’s Round Table as I didn’t actually design a game for my book, but I think that’s because the fundamental message of the book is actually the fundamental message of game design in general.  The creation of any game is an exercise in the game of Illusions.

The Best of Both Worlds

In most fantasy based MMOs these days (and even in most non-fantasy based ones), there are only three functions a player performs at the root: take/absorb damage, deal damage, heal damage.  Most games also usually have one class that is designed to exclusively do one of those tasks.  A warrior tanks, a cleric heals, a wizard or rogue does damage.  Then we introduce the hybrids and controversy ensues.

In real life, at a real job, it is perfectly respectable to have people who specialize in small skill sets working alongside people who have two or three lesser specialties, not to the depth or quality of the single set specialist.  I’ve encountered this in my own life, worked with a guy who was aces at building databases and understanding database structure however his every attempt to ever do user interface work not only looked horrible but failed to function.  I’ve also worked with people who can build the most beautiful web pages but couldn’t properly lay out a database design to save their lives.  Personally, I live somewhere in the middle, I generally do all of programming work from UI to database with a decent degree of competency.  I’m not the best at any of it, but I do all of it well enough.  Usually in a work environment, its best to have a team built mostly of specialists with one or more generalists to support everyone else and to translate and transition work between the specialists.  See, when the UI guru and the DB savant get into a knock down drag out over design, I’m the guy who knows enough about both to be able to talk to both of them and make them see that they are actually agreeing with each other, but using different terms, or to make simple suggestions for both sides to bring them to a point where the work can get done.

In game design, this is where the hybrid should be.  He should be a mix of tanking, healing and damage dealing, any two or all three, to various levels but never as good as the single focus classes.  Hybrids should also be rare, and largely confined to group settings, because the whole point of the hybrid is that he supports other classes in doing their work by picking up slack or boosting just a little.  The problem, of course, is that hybrids are often more dynamic, by design, than the single focus classes, and so they attract more players.  While many people are content to be a specialist in real life, in gaming they want to be able to do everything, on one character.  So you end up with a bunch of people playing Paladins because they want to tank and heal, but then they complain when they do neither of them as well as warriors or priests.

So, what’s the solution?  Is there one?  Does it need one?

I’ve got no answer to those questions… but maybe other people do, and I would love to hear them.

Breadcrumbs

As previously mentioned, I’m back in the world of Norrath.  In addition to picking up the reins on Ishiro, I decided to also start up a new character so I could run through the new tutorial and see some of the changes to the game.  So Jhaer the Drakken cleric was born.  At the same time, since I did sign up for the Station Access, I started up EverQuest II to see how the game had changed since I later played.

In EQ, the new tutorial is fairly fantastic.  It does a great job of introducing you to the features of the game, even grouping.  EQ2 is pretty much the same… in fact after going into game I realized how much Sony cribbed the new EQ design off EQ2.  The default UI layout, the quest logs featuring step by step goals.  They are very similar.

After playing both for a couple of days, I came face to face with one of the reasons I tired of World of Warcraft but had not noticed until now: Breadcrumbs.

In game design, this is the idea of quests, tasks and objects that slowly lead a character through content.  In WoW as a human you start in the newbie area and after a few quests you get one to take a note to Goldshire, where you find your next few quests, which eventually lead you to the lumber mill, and then you get lead to Westfall, and so on.  In WoW though, quests are some of the best source of experience and loot in the game.  The quests are the game.  EQ, being that at its core it is still the same game that came out in 1999, is based largely on killing monsters with quests being secondary.  The two don’t always mix together well.

For World of Warcraft and even EverQuest II, since the game was made for these sorts of quests and the quest log design, if you need to collect gnoll scalps, gnolls scalps don’t drop unless you have the quest.  In EverQuest, gnoll scalps drop even if you don’t have the quest, but while under the old style quest system (no quest log, no stage tracker) if you got 10 scalps before being given the quest, you could turn them in anyway, however, under the new system it only counts the scalps if you loot them AFTER getting the quest, so if you have 10 scalps and get a quest to collect 10 scalps, you have to get 10 more.

Over in EverQuest II, I ran into a different problem.  One of my quests asked me to find evidence of the missing soldiers.  After getting fed up looking for this evidence, I went to a spoiler site and they explained I just needed to go to one spot and find the dead soldier body, which would then spawn a defiled soldier that I would have to kill.  So I went back into game and went to the spot, but there was no dead soldier.  I ran around the area for a couple hours killing everything, but no dead soldier.  The problem here is that this quest is the second quest in a series of six or so breadcrumb quests that are supposed to lead me around the island.  This tutorial area is built with two lines of quests, and if you complete both sets before leaving you end up with a basic set of armor and weapons to carry you into the game.  I fully completed one line, but the second is halted because of this dead soldier who doesn’t seem to exist.  To make things worse, there are usually eight or more of us waiting around for this dead soldier.

In addition to a single broken quest halting an entire line, breadcrumbs quest lines also funnel the players through areas without exploration, and in fact since quests are where the real rewards are in newer games, you are often passively penalized for getting off the path and looking around as progression of your character virtually halts if you don’t play the game the way they want you to play.

I don’t know if there is any solution to this, or if it even needs a solution, its just something I felt like rambling about.